Two years ago, on Oct 29, 2020, a K-9 dog who worked for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department died after being left on a hot day inside a department-owned 2013 Chevy Tahoe, under circumstances that are still unclear.
The dog, whose name was Spike, was a six-year-old black Labrador Retriever who, at the time of his death, was assigned to the Arson Explosives Detail (AED), within the department’s Special Enforcement Bureau, which also includes SWAT, Aero Bureau’s search and rescue, and other specialized units of the LASD.
This particular dog was trained in the art of “accelerant detection,” which meant that Spike would be brought in after a suspicious fire.
According State Farm Insurance, which runs a national training program for “arson dogs,” as K-9s with Spike’s unique set of skills are often called, Labs are particularly suited to the task of looking for microscopic traces of an accelerant due to their unusually heightened ability to discriminate between scents.
Like all other LASD K-9s, Spike was sworn in as a deputy of the LASD by the Los Angeles County Sheriff, at which time the black Lab was given his own department badge.
Spike had been on the job for two-and-a-half years by the time he found himself in an overheated Chevy Tahoe, so his swearing in would have likely been performed by former Sheriff Jim McDonnell, not Sheriff Alex Villanueva, who had yet to be elected.
Since K-9 dogs are quite literally sworn department members, when they die, either in the line of duty or post retirement, their death is announced and honored. For example, here are a few of the social media postings made after the passing of an LASD K-9 named “Ox,” a tactical trailing Bloodhound who died in May 2020, around five months before the day that Spike died.
But, although Ox was publicly mourned and celebrated, no such announcement appeared for Spike. Instead, his death passed unremarked.
Two years later, however, the fact of Spike’s death would finally become public when LASD Lieutenant Joseph Garrido filed a whistleblower lawsuit alleging he had been severely and illegally retaliated against by Sheriff Villanueva for flagging a series of problems and alleged wrongdoing in the department’s Special Enforcement Bureau (SEB), which contains the LASD’s K-9 programs, and where Garrido has worked for more than a dozen years.
K-9 handlers, and those who supervise them, tend to be a close group, even beyond the boundaries of their specific agencies.
Thus it wasn’t altogether surprising that Garrido first heard of Spike’s death from a friend outside the LASD, who was a K-9 handler who worked for an Orange County law enforcement agency.
“I hear you lost a dog,” the OC officer said.
Although there had been no official announcement, inside the LA County Sheriff’s SEB, the word spread quickly.
Within a few days, Garrido began getting texts and calls from K-9 deputies who were upset by what they’d heard about the dog’s death. The deputies felt there was something wrong with the story.
According to department sources, those reaching out to Garrido wanted to make certain the LASD was going to investigate what exactly had occurred that resulted in a K-9 being stuck in the overheated vehicle of his handler Sgt. Daniel Tobin.
Garrido, in turn, called his own SEB boss, Captain Joseph “Joe” Williams, to emphasize the need for an investigation.
Williams reportedly said he would act on the matter.
Yet, time passed without evidence that any kind of probe into Spike’s death had been triggered.
Matters were not helped by the fact that Sheriff Villanueva had not announced Spike’s death department wide, or to the general public.
In stark contrast, on August 14, 2019, 14 months before the death of Spike, over at the Long Beach Police Department, a drug detection K-9 named Ozzy was found dead by his handler inside a department vehicle.
In the case of Ozzy, who was half Belgian Malinois and half German Shepherd, the LBPD immediately released the news of the dog’s death and of the launch of what would become a lengthy investigation, which was eventually turned over to the LA District Attorney’s office. The department also publicly mourned Ozzy, and put up an “end of watch” notice on the LBPD website
Dr. Cassidy enters the picture
During those first weeks and months after K-9 Spike’s death, Garrido wasn’t the only person getting texts and calls from deputies who believed that the dog’s death was not being handled correctly.
A local veterinary doctor who was a favorite of many of the department’s K-9 deputies also found herself hearing from unhappy K-9 handlers.
Dr. Yolanda Cassidy is an experienced and, it appears, well-respected veterinarian who, among her other medical skills, has expertise in the arena known as “tactical K9 casualty” care, which is the vet equivalent of battlefield medicine, treating the dogs when they’re out on the job and medical help is needed.
Cassidy works out of the East Los Angeles Dog and Cat Hospital, which is approximately a ten minute drive from the SEB building.
At the time that K-9 Spike died, she was—and still is— considered the go-to vet for many of the LASD’s various K-9s and their handlers.
The vet had not, however, ever treated arson dog Spike, nor had she ever met Spike’s handler, Sergeant Tobin.
Yet, according to LASD sources familiar with the K-9 program and with Dr. Cassidy, many of her deputy clients trusted her to the degree they felt comfortable confiding in her.
As a consequence, in the fall of 2020 when arson dog Spike’s death occurred, and no public acknowledgement or any kind of investigation appeared to follow, like Lt. Garrido, Cassidy began getting unhappy calls from some of the K-9 deputies whose dogs she treated.
“I got calls from a lot of people who asked if I was going to do something about it,” she told WLA.
By “it,” the deputies meant, she said, that they felt the circumstances of the dog’s death called for a detailed probe.
“If that had been me, I would be in jail already,” one deputy told Cassidy.
They were really upset, Cassidy told WitnessLA. “The deputies felt that he was getting preferential treatment.”
“He” was Sergeant Tobin, who some of the K-9 deputies viewed through a dark lens already. This was mostly due to the fact that, prior to his time at SEB, Tobin had worked for the department’s Internal Criminal Affairs Bureau. During his years as an ICIB investigator, Tobin was involved with bringing what turned out to be false criminal charges against two LASD deputies, Deputy Robert Lindsey Jr. and his partner Deputy Charles Rodriquez.
The case—which WLA has written about here and here—was widely viewed as the product of a vendetta on the part of the LASD’s notorious former undersheriff, Paul Tanaka, against Deputy Rob Lindsey’s father, who was a retired commander that, in previous years, found himself on Tanaka’s bad list.
(Paul Tanaka would later be convicted of unrelated federal crimes and sent to federal prison.)
Yet, the fact that Tobin had been named in the lawsuit as one the department members prominently responsible for bringing the false case against the two deputies made him hard for some K-9 handlers to trust.
Now it seemed that, for some reason, this same guy was able to dodge what the SEB deputies viewed as a much needed examination of the circumstances surrounding the death of his working dog.
Cassidy kept telling her deputy friends that she couldn’t get involved, and that she “didn’t know anything about department politics.”
As luck would have it, however, two years later, Dr. Cassidy would find herself unexpectedly quite involved in department politics without her knowledge or permission.
But before we get to that part of the story, it helps to look at the official version of K-9 Spike’s death.
Spike’s death Version One
As mentioned above, the fact that an LASD K-9 had died under troubling circumstances on October 29, 2020 was not known beyond the boundaries of the SEB, and a few other department members, until October 17, 2022, the day that civil rights attorney Vincent Miller filed Lt. Joseph Garrido’s whistleblower complaint in Superior Court.
In the 58-page complaint, Garrido suggested that Sheriff Alex Villanueva had told Garrido’s boss, Captain Joe Willams, to “quash the investigation” into the death of Spike to avoid ‘bad media’ for himself and the LASD.
With this allegation evidently in mind, on October 18, 2022, the day after the lawsuit was released, Sheriff Villanueva posted an angry reply to Garrido’s filing on both Facebook and Instagram, disputing the idea that Spike’s death had not been aggressively investigated.
“Among the many false statements contained within this lawsuit, we will focus on the tragic death of a Department K-9 named ‘Spike,’” Villanueva wrote.
“Please read the October 6, 2020, memorandum regarding the supervisory inquiry into this unfortunate tragedy which details the incident and the actions which took place to prevent it from happening again.”
Villanueva then linked to a three page memo dated Oct 6, 2020, the stated purpose of which was “to provide information on the inquiry regarding the death of a county canine…”
In other words, Spike.
Here are the basics of what this new LASD memo described:
On the day Spike died, the black lab had been locked inside his portable kennel, which was at that time located in the cargo area of a 2013 Chevy Tahoe, a department vehicle that was assigned to Spike’s handler Sergeant Daniel Tobin.
On Tuesday, September 29, 2020, Sgt. Tobin had planned to work in his office in the SEB Building at 1060 N. Eastern Avenue, where he arrived at approximately 7 a.m.
It was going to be a hot day.
(The temperature records maintained by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) show that, on that Tuesday, September 29, 2020, the temperature on the eastside of LA County rose to the low to mid 90s)]
So, before Tobin left his dog in the Tahoe, he gave Spike a bio break, and filled his water bowl. Then, the sergeant put the K-9 back into his crate in the cargo of the Tahoe.
To further keep Spike safe from the rising heat, the memo describes how Tobin left the Tahoe’s engine on “secure idle” with the air conditioner running. Tobin also made sure the vehicle’s “heat alarm” was activated.
This heat alarm, is a fail safe used by many law enforcement agencies with a K9 unit, in order to make sure that their dogs are not accidentally trapped in a hot car.
The alarm that the LASD uses reportedly should have let Tobin know via his phone if, for some reason, the vehicle began heating up beyond what was safe for its K-9 occupant.
After activating the alarm, Sgt Tobin then reportedly went inside the office to work on various cases, leaving Spike in the car.
At around 9:30 a.m., according to the memo’s account, Tobin returned to the parking lot to check on Spike, whom he found to be fine. Then, after spending a bit of time with his dog, Tobin returned to the SEB office at approximately 10 a.m.
At approximately 12:45 p.m. Sgt. Tobin reportedly returned a final time to check on Spike. But, this time, when Tobin opened the Tahoe door, he found the interior temperature of the vehicle to be hot, although the heat alarm had reportedly not gone off.
In other words, although the air conditioning had worked appropriately three hours earlier, now both the air conditioning, and the fail safe protection of the heat alarm appeared to have broken down with catastrophic results.
Tobin reportedly checked on Spike and found him to be “unconscious,” and “unresponsive,” with “shallow respirations.”
Spike also appeared to have vomited.
The memo further describes how, unable to rouse his dog, Tobin drove Spike to an area of the SEB parking lot where he knew he would find a garden hose. There he used the hose spray to Spike with cool water in an attempt to “arouse” the dog.
When the cool bath didn’t work, Sgt. Tobin drove his K-9 partner to the East Los Angeles Dog and Cat Hospital, which is an approximately 3.9 mile drive from the SEB building.
En route, the emergency heat alarm, which is reportedly known colloquially as the “hot dog,” alarm, unaccountably went off. When he arrived at the animal hospital, Corbin reported that the alarm went off one more time.
There, according to the official account, Dr. Doctor Yolanda Cassidy and members of the clinic’s staff treated Spike aggressively but were unable to save him.
The next day, September 30, 2020, Tobin drove the Tahoe with its faulty air conditioning to a mechanic at Pitchess Detention Center, which the memo noted “regularly services our county vehicles.”
The memo went on to say that a Pitchess mechanic serviced the 2013 Tahoe and “determined that the air conditioner was low on freon.” However, once three lbs. of freon were added, according to the memo, “the air conditioner was working as expected.”
Five days later still, on October 5, 2020, the memo describes how SEB Lieutenant Sue Burakowski went back to the East LA Dog and Cat Hospital where, according to the memo, she interviewed Doctor Yolanda Cassidy about what had occurred when Cassidy and her team had treated Spike.
In this same official account, Dr. Cassidy explained that she and the staff “immediately intubated the canine” to help him to breathe, then gave him “some medications.” But after treating Spike for approximately 15 minutes, they “pronounced the canine deceased.”
The memo further suggests that Dr. Cassidy thought the dog’s death may have been caused by more than merely the heat, that he could have been suffering from underlying medical conditions “especially based” on “the type of chemicals” to which “he was regularly exposed.”
The primary conclusion of then-Captain Joe Williams, who is listed as the author of the memo (and who has since reportedly been promoted by Villanueva) was that, after “looking at all of the factors involved in this incident, it is my determination that Sergeant Tobin’s canine did not die as a result of his negligence.”
Yet, according to department sources, working and retired, along with official documents that WitnessLA has reviewed, there is a great deal wrong with the story that the official LASD memo describes.
The case of the misidentified doctor
One of the first and most glaring problems with the LASD’s newly revealed account of Spike’s death, was the fact that Dr. Cassidy never treated Spike on the day he died—or any other time in the dog’s life.
Although Yolanda Cassidy has treated, and continues to treat, a great many of the LA County Sheriff’s Department’s K-9s, she was not at work on October 29, 2020, the day that Sgt. Tobin rushed his dog to the East LA veterinary clinic.
She took a rare day off to go to the doctor.
The following day, when Dr. Cassidy came to work as usual, her vet tech took her aside and described the details of the death of the black Lab K-9 the day before.
The vet tech also told how the dog’s handler, Sgt. Tobin had been very upset at the death of his K-9 partner, and was crying when he left the clinic.
Cassidy got the sergeant’s information and ordered flowers to be sent to the man.
“I always do that for my clients,” she told WitnessLA. So, client or no, she sent the flowers as an act of sympathy and kindness.
The issue of Spike’s death came up again for Cassidy a few days later on Oct. 5, 2020, when officials from the sheriff’s department came to the veternary hospital and asked to meet with the vet who treated Spike in Yolanda Cassidy’s absence.
Cassidy described to WLA how she facilitated the interview, but didn’t participate.
After the LASD officials left the clinic, other than the calls and texts about the K-9’s death that Dr. Cassidy was still receiving from a cluster of her deputy clients, her part in Spike’s story should have ended.
But two years later, on October 18, 2022, a friend sent her a link to the LASD memo, which had just become public with her name splashed through the narrative of Spike’s death, a story that was now hitting various news outlets.
“Girl, you’re all over the news,” said the friend.
Cassidy read the memo.
“I guess they thought I’d just go along with whatever they said,” she told us.
“My heart was broken,” said Dr. Cassidy. “I felt betrayed.
High body temperatures and rigor mortis
Among the statements with which Cassidy was expected to agree was the description of Spike’s condition when he came to the clinic, and the clinic’s subsequent observations and treatment, a great deal of which was at odds with the clinic’s actual medical assessment, which WLA has reviewed.
According to the veterinary hospital’s documents, when Spike arrived at the clinic, the staff found his body temperature to be 107 degrees, still very high considering he’d been doused with water, and theoretically rushed to the veterinary hospital.
When Spike arrived at vet hospital he was “cyanotic,” meaning his skin and gums were bluish due to lack of oxygen. The clinic vet found no heartbeat at all in the Lab. The vet gave Spike a dose of epinephrine, a drug used for, among other reasons, to restart a stopped heart. Spike did not respond.
The vet on duty also noted in the clinic’s written report, that “rigor mortis” was already present, an observation that appears to be at odds Sgt. Tobin’s statement that Spike was still alive when he came to the parking lot and found his K-9 in an overheated car.
In any case, after 15 minutes of treatment, the clinic’s personnel pronounced Spike dead at 1:35 p.m on Oct 29, 2020, which was approximately 50 minutes after Sgt. Tobin reported having found Spike unconscious in the over-hot Tahoe.
It was a time frame that department sources found perplexing, given the fact that the vet was around 10 minutes away from the SEB building.
“And presumably, he would have been driving Code 3, lights and sirens,” said a retired department member.
So what caused the delay?
There was also one more element of the Spike narrative that some department sources found odd.
With the death of a department K-9 where the cause of death is not 100 percent clear, a necropsy is called for, according to department sources.
A necropsy is an autopsy for animals.
For example, in the case of the Long Beach PD’s K-9 Ozzy, such an examination was performed by a vet to determine the dog’s cause of death.
In the case of military K-9s, Dr. Cassidy told us, a necropsy is mandatory, even in the case of retired dogs who die of old age.
Yet, in the case of K-9 Spike, there was no way the vet could do a necropsy because, when Sgt. Tobin left the clinic, he took Spike’s body with him.
“He should never have taken that dog,” a department source told us.
“Everyone who watches crime shows knows that in the case of a human death when there are questions, the family has a wait for an autopsy, no matter how painful that might be.”
And Spike was a department member. “So it was important to determine exactly how and why he died.”
The oddities of the official account continue when it comes to the matter of the overheating Tahoe.
According to the “supervisor inquiry” as the memo is titled, on November 30, 2020, the day after Spike died, Sgt. Tobin drove the 2013 Chevy Tahoe to a mechanic at Pitchess Detention Center in Castaic, which is 60 to 90 minutes from the SEB building, depending on traffic.
At Pitchess, a mechanic “serviced the vehicle, and determined that the air conditioner was low on freon,” stated the memo. “Once the freon was added, the air conditioner was working as expected.”
According to LASD sources, and one Chevy mechanic WLA consulted, this description is somewhat baffling.
“Taking the vehicle to Pitchess is the first red flag,” said a SEB-experienced department source, who is also familiar with LASD’s “fleet” policies.
“For one thing, the SEB has its own mechanics which had been servicing the Tahoe,” he said. “Plus we have mechanics at Eastern,” meaning the department’s East LA Station, which is located approximately three miles away from the SEB campus.
“Most importantly, we have three dozen dogs running around in cars, so that Tahoe should have been looked at very closely in order to determine if this is a one-off, or is it something that could cause issues across the board and potentially endanger other dogs,” said the source.
“The department’s fleet management absolutely should have been notified,” the source added.
But, according to the memo, none of that happened. “All the mechanic did was just add freon, which doesn’t make sense” said the source.
“If the air conditioning worked the day before, and earlier in the morning, it is unusual for it to just stop working, unless you have a catastrophic leak. But according to the memo Villanueva released, the Pitchess mechanic just added 3 lbs of freon and the Tahoe was good to go.”
Since the car is rated for 2.5 lbs of freon, the source continued, “if the mechanic added 3 lbs, this means that the freon was dead empty or nearly so, which further means you had a major rupture somewhere in the system.”
“Unless someone drained the freon,” suggested one source.
An expert mechanic at a Southern California Chevy dealership (who did not want to be named), agreed that the sudden loss of freon described suggests a serious leak, which might require mechanical sleuthing in order to return the Tahoe to safe operability.
WitnessLA obtained a copy of the repair report issued by the Pitchess mechanic, which indicates that the mechanic checked for leaks but found none. Thus, he simply put in the 3 lbs of freon.
“Recharged with freon,” the mechanic wrote. “AC blowing cold.”
And that was that.
Sources also found it problematic that the official memo made no mention of any forensic examination of the heat alarm that didn’t go off.
Since this is a protective device commonly used by K-9 handlers, if the device is broken or flawed, common sense suggests it should have been thoroughly inspected, to determine what went wrong.
“But nothing at all was mentioned in the memo about the alarm that failed to go off,” retired Assistant Sheriff Bob Olmsted told us. “That to me was even more critical than the problem with the air conditioning .”
(WitnessLA has multiple calls into the manufacturer of the device used by the LASD. We have yet to hear back from them.)
As for the mechanic and the cause of a malfunctioning air conditioning, Olmstead said he would like to see the Pitchess mechanic in front of a grand jury.
“I’d like to see what he’d say. If the department is lying, I don’t think he’d perjure himself under oath for them. So I’d really like to hear his account, because what we have now just doesn’t make sense.”
When you add the list of irregularities, said Olmsted “to the fact that they quoted the veterinarian who wasn’t even there when Spike came in….it’s alarming.
“This is something that must be examined.”
Civil rights attorney Vincent Miller also believes the death of arson dog Spike should not be overlooked by soon-to-be sheriff Robert Luna.
“Spike was a cop who died in the line of duty and should have been honored for his service,” he said.
“So why in the world did the LASD cover his death up?”
One of the most interesting parts of the case, said Miller, “is that a lot of LASD personnel were concerned from day one that Spike’s death would be covered up.”
Yolanda Cassidy agreed that the K-9 deputies she spoke with never wavered with their concern.
“From the beginning they knew what had happened,” she said. “They knew.”
And it wasn’t the story depicted in the memo the sheriff released, she said.
K-9 Spike & the LASD’s future
Prior to learning the outcome of the November 8 election, Dr. Cassidy repeatedly wondered if Sheriff Villanueva was going to let the LASD’s K-9 dogs continue to see her.
“That hospital was home to a lot of the department’s dogs,” she said in one of our conversations. “And I want to continue this work. It’s what I’d want to do if they paid me or not,” Cassidy said. And the worry about whether she’d be allowed to continue was quite literally keeping her up at night.
“In the sheriff’s department, even if other people are doing the right thing, if the person at the top of the department isn’t doing the right thing, it affects everyone else.” said Dr. Cassidy
“They didn’t care who they involved in the story they told, and it was hurtful,” she said.
“Law enforcement is supposed to be there to protect us.
In the first week of December, 2022, former Long Beach Chief of Police Robert Luna will be sworn in as the new Los Angeles County Sheriff, which right now is arguably the most challenging job in all of American law enforcement.
So, as he faces problems such as the department’s 50-year-long toxic culture of deputy gangs with names like Banditos and Executioners, will the death of K-9 Spike two years ago make it on to the new sheriff’s To Do list?
Or is that asking too much?
When asked the question, the department members we reached on the topic—whether still serving or retired—each gave us a version of the same answer.
“Bottom line, the department needs to reopen this investigation,” said former Assistant Sheriff Olmsted. “It’s essential. We owe it to our K-9s. We owe it to our people.”
Update, July 6, 2023
Today, Thursday, July 6, 2023, veterinarian Dr. Yolanda Cassidy filed a civil rights lawsuit against Los Angeles County, former LA County sheriff Alex Villanueva, and two department members who were allegedly collectively involved in falsely claiming that Dr. Cassidy had treated K-9 Spike before he died, including falsely attributing to her quotes about her supposed treatment of the department’s six-year-old accelerant detection dog before he died.
Civil rights attorney Vincent Miller filed the lawsuit in Dr. Cassidy’s behalf.
Thus far Sheriff Robert Luna has reportedly not re-opened an investigation into K-9 Spikes death.
So, the story continues.